It was 11:32 p.m. on a Saturday night, and a group of high school students was grappling with a compelling question for our times: Should the pizza they were about to order have anchovies or pepperoni?
Suddenly, the democratic process was interrupted by the ring of a phone. The president of the group, Bridget Reeder, got up to answer it.
"CARS, may I help you? . . . .A ride home? Okay, what's your name? . . . .Where do you go to school? . . . .Where are you calling from? . . . .And where do you live? . . . .Have you been drinking alcohol? . . . .Okay, we'll be right there."
Five minutes later, T.C. Williams High School seniors Janet Peyton and Al Conde drove up to a modern brick home off King Street, near downtown Alexandria. Without a word, a 15-year-old boy wearing a light jacket and polka dot surfing shorts ran out the front door and scrambled into the back seat.
Three more minutes, and the car was pulling up to the young man's house. Again without a word, he got out and sprinted up the path.
The pizza toppings may vary, and so may the talkativeness of the passengers. But for two years, the result of a phone call to CARS hasn't.
On any Friday or Saturday night between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., except during the summer, students at T.C. Williams High School, George Washington Junior High or Hammond Junior High can call 998-2040 and get a free ride home from a pair of peers like Janet and Al. The only questions that will be asked are those Bridget Reeder asked the boy in the polka dot shorts.
CARS (it stands for Catch A Ride Safely) was born in April 1983 out of concern over drunk driving. The three T.C. Williams students who started the program had been involved in a serious car accident after doing some serious drinking. They saw the need for a system whereby kids who had had a few could get a free lift home from their fellow students -- without the involvement of parents, school officials or police.
But CARS has caught on so well that most of its business now centers on problems other than alcohol.
A typical caller is marooned somewhere in Alexandria without a ride or bus fare. Perhaps he wants to leave a party, and the person who brought him there doesn't. Or perhaps a friend is calling for someone else, to try to keep him from getting behind the wheel. Or perhaps Mom has set an 11 p.m. curfew, and Sonny has just realized that it's 10:55. Or perhaps a girl has spent two hours with a date and is whispering into a pay phone that she doesn't want to spend another minute.
"We take them all," says Al Conde. "Any student who wants a ride for any reason."
CARS driving teams consist of a male and a female. Two teams are on duty each Friday and Saturday night. They are backstopped by a dispatcher, and by two of the 20 members of the CARS adult advisory board.
Drivers and dispatcher communicate via CB radio, which is the only item on CARS' budget (its cost was donated by local businesses and by the Alexandria Rotary Club). T.C. Williams donates the use of a phone, and office space in its career center. Local restaurants donate midnight snacks. Best of all, the 50 Williams students who belong to CARS donate their time.
"We're really doing something very close to us," said Janet Peyton. "We know the dangers are out there. There are places in Alexandria where a 14-year-old can go in and buy a six-pack of beer."
"One night, we had a call for some girls who were down at Springfield Mall, stranded at midnight, with no way to get home. I just think, 'My God, what if the person calling were me?' " says Bridget Reeder.
"You have a very good feeling when you do this," said Gretchen Hohlweg, a CARS vice president.
CARS came under fire at first from some parents and school officials. They thought that by offering kids such a reliable weekend bailout, CARS was in effect encouraging them to drink.
But opposition has all but disappeared. "I think everyone sees that, pragmatically, some kids are going to drink whether CARS is there or not," says Steve Vetter, one of the adult advisers.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about CARS is that there has been no serious effort to copy it elsewhere in the metropolitan area. The only similar program in the United States is run by high school students in Darien, Conn.
Al Conde thinks CARS would be difficult to manage in a larger jurisdiction. "In Alexandria, we have only the one high school and the two junior high schools," he said. "We can get everywhere pretty quickly. If you had this in Fairfax County, it could take you 45 minutes to get to a call."
That's true, but it hardly seems insurmountable. Dedicated kids in Alexandria have shown that all it takes is a tankful of gas and a willingness to debate the relative merits of anchovies and pepperoni. CARS is a program that deserves to be tried wherever there's a kid who needs a ride.